System76 - POP! goes my heart


Updated: October 7, 2017

Music and lyrics. Distros and fonts. This is a tricky tricky topic, which is why when I hear about professional attempts to introduce new fonts into the Linux world, I always perk up and listen. System76 is a known player in the distro field, offering Ubuntu-based hardware for some time now. And recently, they've announced their own distro flavor, which is going to be using a custom theme and icon set simply known as POP! Sounds groovy.

Anyway, you have probably read my Fedora font saga and the recent attempt to actually make openSUSE usable, and like me, you are yearning for high-quality fonts, and in general, a professional level of text ergonomics. So far, Ubuntu seems to be the one distro that has it done well. And System76 aims to build on top of that. Let's see.

Teaser

Testing, testing

I decided to test these fonts not just on Ubuntu. That's too trivial. I decided to also see whether it's going to make any difference with openSUSE Leap 42.3 as well as Fedora 25, both of which are installed on my Lenovo G50 machine.

Fedora 25

I am already running a heavily modified and tweaked Fedora 25 instance, because the defaults just aren't good. Apre pimping, the distro looks and behaves in a reasonable way, and it comes with all the extra stuff that ordinary people need and expect. This also includes Droid Sans fonts, which make a hell of a lot of difference compared to the defaults.

This was an interesting experiment. The new fonts are cool - they work really great in Gnome, compared to both Unity and Plasma, but if you're already using nice fonts like Droid Sans, the wow factor is significantly diminished. Noto Sans isn't the best default choice in Gnome, but it works well in Plasma. Wild Wild Tux, friends.

I did the following comparisons: Roboto Slab and Fira versus Noto and Droid, each, respectively. The screenshots below illustrate the effects. As you can see, the advantage of POP! over Droid Sans isn't massive.

Roboto Slab vs Noto

Roboto Slab vs Droid

Fira vs Noto

Fira vs Droid

OpenSUSE

Here, on an equally heavily tweaked Leap 42.3, the results were even less encouraging. In fact, it's not just the POP! fonts. Any other font, Droid Sans included, does not really make much sense on Plasma, and they all look kind of condensed and weird. It's a tricky situation, because it does not really give you much maneuvering space. But Roboto Slab and Fira don't really match the Plasma layout. If you haven't already given the linked article on SUSE fonts a read, you should do that now. It tells a much longer and more elaborate story, including the finer points of sub-pixel rendering, hinting and more.

Change default fonts

OpenSUSE comparison

Top to bottom: Noto Sans, Roboto Slab, Fira Sans, 12 points.

Ubuntu test

Now, working with LTS 16.04 Xenial Xerus, I was actually expecting a drastic, positive change. Strangely no. Reading more on the POP! package, the theme and icons are forked from Papirus, and the fonts follow suit. You can even see from my openSUSE screenshot that I love the Papirus theme. But the squarish and ever slightly too-pale icons work less effectively against the rounded Ubuntu desktop. You can't dispute the quality, but the match just isn't as perfect as it can be.

Default fonts

Ubuntu, new fonts

Conclusion

This was far more interesting than I'd expected. One, there isn't ONE font that works uniformly well across different desktop environments, and frankly, that is a little bit disturbing. Two, Ubuntu still offers the most complete default package. Three, POP! fonts are rather nice and modern, and it seems they work the best in stock Gnome, if you're not already using something like Droid Sans.

It would seem we've chipped another facet of this multi-dimensional monster called Linux Fonts, as it feels just impossible to nail down the simple, elegant formula for maximum ergonomics, productivity and fun. You have to ride the licensing, anti-aliasing and hinting shuttles all at the same time, and they seem to be going in different directions. Ubuntu is way ahead of the rest, and this is why the System76 experiment will be rather intriguing. I want to see how the complete package will behave. You should test and see how you feel about Roboto Slab and Fira. My hunch says, Gnome great, Ubuntu, not so much. But we will see. And of course, we shall be testing the distro, so stay tuned.

Cheers.

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